California Republicans on Tuesday introduced legislation to temporarily halt the requirements of the state's Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) program and redirect funds to ensure utilities improve their infrastructure and vegetation management programs.
The proposed bill would also, if and when the program is reinstated, include nuclear generation and all hydroelectric facilities operating as of January 1, 2021 in the program's definition of an "eligible renewable energy resource."
The bill, along with a second piece of legislation introduced by state Assemblyman James Gallagher, R, and Sen. Jim Nielsen, R, "will help prevent future wildfires and utility power shutoff events," according to a press release. But environmental advocates say that the move to extend RPS eligibility to hydro and nuclear facilities might not go far in California's current political landscape.
California established its RPS program in 2002, requiring at the time that renewable resources make up 20% of electricity retail sales by 2017. However, the program's targets have changed over the years; the state passed Senate Bill 100 in 2018, accelerating RPS requirements to 60% by 2030, as well as requiring that carbon-free resources supply all of the state's electricity by 2045.
Large hydropower and nuclear generation don't currently count toward the RPS standard requirements, but the state is still defining the zero-carbon requirement passed in SB 100, Alex Jackson, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Utility Dive.
In the last three years, California utilities have also been wrestling with the increased threat of wildfires posed by their infrastructure. Devastating fires in 2017, 2018 and 2019 have caused billions of dollars in damage across the state, pushing Pacific Gas & Electric to declare bankruptcy in early 2019.
To reduce this risk, the utility adopted a public safety power shut-off (PSPS) program, proactively de-energizing areas that are particularly prone to fires during windy or dry weather conditions. The shut-offs have drawn widespread criticism from regulators, lawmakers and customers in Northern California.
Assembly Bill 1941 would tackle the issue by suspending the state's RPS requirements, and tasking the California Public Utilities Commission with estimating how much utilities would save in costs associated with the program, redirecting those funds toward upgrading infrastructure to reduce fire risks.
During this time period, utility executives will not be allowed any salary increases or bonuses. If the program is reinstated, eligibility would be extended to all nuclear generating facilities and any hydroelectric facility in operation as of January 1, 2021.
The lawmakers introduced another bill — AB 1942 — which would appropriate $330 million from the state's greenhouse gas reduction fund and channel it to fire prevention programs.
"California must get smarter about its climate goals. Century-old infrastructure, tinderbox forests and PSPS events are unacceptable. Renewable energy mandates that take away from addressing these issues while fires continue to burn are intolerable. With our plan, we can do better on carbon reduction and combating catastrophic fire," Gallagher said in a press release.
However, Jackson said the bill's premise that suspending the RPS program will free up money to invest in wildfire mitigation is flawed. While early renewables contracts signed by investor-owned utilities were expensive, renewables today are cheaper than fossil fuel generation, he said.
"The problem is not one of RPS compliance — it's one of legacy contracts and ripping up existing contracts is not something that suspending the RPS requirements is going to enable," he said.
On a more fundamental level, he said, the bill presents a false choice between California's clean energy future, and wildfire safety and mitigation. Utilities need to focus on dramatically improving their infrastructure to prevent wildfires in the near term, but a long-term solution to fire risk involves decarbonizing the power system, he said.
"We can't throw out the baby with the bathwater in trying to solve for short-term fire mitigation while letting climate change continue to run amok," Jackson added.
But nuclear advocates say the second part of the bill is "really encouraging," and nuclear power could play an important role in California's decarbonization goals.
"It creates virtually unlimited clean energy in a very small space — it occupies a fraction of the space that solar or wind farms do," Carl Wurtz, president of Californians for Green Nuclear Power, told Utility Dive.
The group was frustrated when SB 100 excluded nuclear energy in the 2030 goal. The state's last operational nuclear facility, the PG&E-owned Diablo Canyon Power Plant, is currently slated to retire by 2025. The plant's closure will eliminate 9% of California's electricity, which raises questions over what will fill the gap, Wurtz said.
However, it's early in the bill's progress and Wurtz intends to keep an eye on potential changes to the final version before taking a definite stand on it.
Environmental advocates pushed back against the proposal to include both large hydropower and nuclear generation as eligible resources under the RPS program.
The RPS is part of a deliberate state move away from fossil fuels, and utilities already get a lot of their power from hydro, so counting it in the RPS requirements would discourage investments in wind, solar, and other renewables, Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, told Utility Dive.
And because California has and is likely to face more extended droughts in the future, hydropower could become less reliable, leading to more gas-fired back-up plants firing up, according to Phillips.
On the nuclear energy front, "there's no way you can call nuclear renewable," she said. "It doesn't emit carbon, but it has lots of other very intense environmental impacts."
"Nuclear is being phased out not because of its ineligibility for RPS requirements, but because these large inflexible baseload plants are increasingly incompatible with a system that's predominantly run on intermittent clean energy resources," according to Jackson.
Flexibility is key going forward and the high operating costs of nuclear plants is what led PG&E to propose the retirement of the Diablo Canyon plant in the first place, he added.
The National Hydropower Association did not respond to a request for comment.